Melinda Gates: The Feminine Side of a Global Alliance

Bono calls her husband “Kill Bill”, even when he’s expressing his feminine side — if curing malaria worldwide is feminine and building Microsoft masculine. Fortune checks in with the famous philanthropy couple. 

"Lots of people like him -- and I include myself (Bono) -- are enraged, and we sweep ourselves into a fury at the wanton loss of lives. What we need is a much slower pulse to help us be rational. Melinda is that pulse." (Warren) Buffett also believes that Melinda makes Bill a better decision-maker. "He's smart as hell, obviously," Buffett says. "But in terms of seeing the whole picture, she's smarter."

The more we read about Melinda Gates, she is a Smart Sensuality woman, amping up her good looks, without losing her geek appeal. That reality reminds us that Smart Sensuality women come in many visual images.

In an American workplace culture that frowns on dating the boss, the Bill and Melinda Gates love affair may be one of the nation’s most famous pairings.

Melinda Gates on Flickr via sownet’s photostreamArriving in Seattle in 1987 as a marketing manager for what would become Word, Melinda French was one of 10 MBAs. The macho geek culture DID faze her. “It was a very acerbic company,” she recalls. That culture trickled down from the top, where Gates and Ballmer badgered and harangued managers. Melinda thought about leaving Microsoft.

Melinda Gates sat next to the boss at a NYC business dinner, just four months after she joined Microsoft.

“He certainly was funnier than I expected him to be,” she recalls. What attracted Bill to Melinda? “I guess her looks,” he says.

Patty Stonesifter, Melinda’s old boss at Microsoft and former CEO of the Gates Foundation calls then Melinda French a hotshot. “No question, if she had stayed, she would have been on the executive team at Microsoft.”

When Bill Gates initially decided to go into the philanthropy business, he wanted to give computers to children in schools. That gesture was deemed too self-serving in an activist climate downright hostile to Microsoft at times.

It was Melinda, now married to Gates, who read a front-page NY times story about children dying of rotavirus, which then killed more than 500,000 children every year. Melinda put a note and the story on Bill’s desk. “This can’t be happening.” Melinda said.

Exchanging notes is part of the Gates relationship DNA. Now that both work at the Gates Foundation in adjoining offices, the tag-team issues relay is even easier to execute.

Former President Bill Clinton, who paid tribute to Melinda at a Save the Children dinner in New York City in September, said that two years ago, when he went to Africa with the Gateses , he and Bill "thought we were so smart. We showed how much we knew about all these issues, you know, and we asked all the right questions. Melinda just sat there patiently. And then when we shut up, she bored in and said, 'What are you doing in education? What are you doing on prevention? How many people are using condoms?'" The two Bills wilted. " Melinda showed that in the end, women are stronger than men when it counts," Clinton said.

I remember thinking that Melinda Gates was humanizing Bill, taking this enormous fortune and putting it to good use.

An independent spirit and practicing Catholic, Melinda feels no guilt over funding condom distribution in Africa — a practice disavowed by the Pope. “Condoms save lives,” she says.

Melinda insists that it needs partners in attacking global problems. Relatively speaking, she says, "our pocket of money is quite small. The NIH budget is $29 billion. The state of California spends $60 billion in one year. If we spent that, our entire foundation would be out of business."

So the Gates Foundation has allied with other charities—Rockefeller, Michael and Susan Dell, Hewlett—and with companies such as GlaxoSmithKline and Procter & Gamble on various projects. The most successful joint venture is the GAVI Alliance, formerly called the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization, which the Gateses helped start with donations of $1.5 billion. With 17 donor governments and the European Union in the fold, GAVI has distributed vaccines (including tetanus, hepatitis B, and yellow fever) to 138 million children in 70 of the world's poorest countries. Thanks largely to this alliance, immunization rates are at all-time highs in the developing world, and more than two million premature deaths have been prevented.

As a compliment to Fortune Magazine, this 2008 article Melinda Gates goes public is superbly done and well worth the long read. I recommend it highly. Anne

See also Bill & Melinda Gates foundation website.